by David Stark
Lights dimmed, spotlights, stroboscopic effects, and loud rock music. The camera on a large boom arm swings toward the audience who can now see themselves, clapping and cheering, displayed on one of the enormous screens above the stage. The warmup act is over and the headline performer bounds onto the set amidst frenzied applause. We are at VictoryChurch.tv, one of several megachurches that I have been studying in Oklahoma City.
In 1904, German sociologist Max Weber traveled to Oklahoma where he conducted field research, leading to an article, “Church and Sect in North America,” and his most influential book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. A century later, the megachurches of Oklahoma City seemed an appropriate setting to witness recent developments in the relationship between religious experience and contemporary capitalism.
Evangelical, non-denominational “megachurches” (defined as congregations with more than 2,000 members) are the fastest growing segment of religious affiliation in the United States. VictoryChurch.tv and LifeChurch.tv are two such Oklahoma City megachurches. Indeed, these are their official names, inscribed on large signs (complete with logos resembling the Nike swoosh or dot.com startups) reaching high above gargantuan parking lots. Each began in the mid-1990s with a handful of members. VictoryChurch, for example, first worshipped in the cafeteria of a public high school. Within a decade, weekly attendance had grown to over 6,000 (at VictoryChurch) and over 13,000 on five “campuses” (LifeChurch). They achieved such growth through an innovative recombination of the cultures of church and commerce.
The architecture of these churches is the first signal of such recombination. There are no steeples, in fact, from the street one sees no crosses or other religious symbols. After outgrowing the high school cafeteria, VictoryChurch leased space in a declining shopping center, one of the familiar “strip malls” that line the thoroughfares of most American cities. From these still modest operations (the suburban equivalent of an urban “storefront” mission church), it quickly expanded to acquire the entire retail property (80,000 square feet) just two blocks from old Route 66. From the parking lot, one sees the signage of its various facilities: a bookstore (at which one can purchase CDs, DVDs, and other materials produced by the church’s audio-visual department), a coffee shop (serving Starbuck’s registered coffee), an arts and crafts studio, and its own religiously themed “Toys ‘R Us” (with a logo that must come just short of trademark infringement). Unlike some of the other, even larger, Oklahoma City megachurch campuses, VictoryChurch does not have a gym or fitness center.
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